An American visit to Odessa as seen by a Soviet

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 41
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Sisana Mukhametshina is involved in the Friendship Society in Odessa and is just beginning a career as a teacher.

We of the Friendship Society see our primary task during meetings with foreign visitors as helping our guests get an understanding of our country devoid of prejudices and misconceptions brought from home. They often find this help valuable, as their time here is quite short.

I recall warmly the visit of a group of U.S. peacemakers in November of 1985. The group included people of different ages and professions. We were aware of the noble goals of their mission and of the group they represented, the Earthstewards Network. The reception in the Walnut Room of the Friendship House began with some brief introductory speeches, and then the group broke up into a number of small informal circles. I found myself in the company of two charming youngsters, Morgan, a 14-year-old girl, and Charlie, a 15-year-old boy. I told them about my just-completed first experience of practice teaching in a secondary school, where my students were about their age. The young Americans responded to the humor of the situation, and later on we both found delight in playing our parts, I the very grownup and very strict class-dame and they the mischievous kids, making fun of the venerable teacher and her imperfect English.

Next day, the student and teachers of Secondary School No. 117 arranged a tea-party with discotheque for the American guests, and we met there again. When the party was over and we had shared a lot of dancing, tea-drinking, arguing, laughing, and more dancing, it was already late evening. We were walking along beautiful Lenin St., breathing the fresh night air, and one of us, a 44-year-old accountant from California named John, said, "What a wonderful feeling, as if I were at home – the same carefree people walking along the street, the same cozy rustling of cars passing by and of fallen leaves on the pavement, and no discomfort for the soul."

Their group was leaving Odessa the next afternoon, and in the morning we decided to spend the few free hours left on a farewell walk by the sea. It was a lovely Sunday morning. We walked along tiny, quiet streets and presented a curious sight to occasional passersby. Indefatigable Charlie was walking rather carelessly backwards, facing the rest of us and teaching us tongue twisters. "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" "Sally sells seashells at the seashore." We repeated them as best we could and then made Charlie repeat a couple of tongue twisters in Russian. Everyone was laughing merrily. Soon Charlie’s attention was caught by Odessa’s cats. Complacent, fantastically colored, extremely proud and fastidious, they looked at him with disdainful bewilderment and obviously did not understand his passionate mewing on account of his American accent.

Soon we came to the Alley of Glory, a World War II memorial in the maritime park. All of us quieted down; only Charlie kept on joking and fooling around. But he, too, hushed when we came to a tombstone with the inscription "Yasha Gordienko. 1926-1943." This boy was a partisan tortured and executed in prison by the Nazis. His name is very famous here today, and a school, a ship, and the Pioneer Palace in Odessa are named after him.

We descended to the sea, and from their pockets the American boys produced some pebbles and began throwing them into the rough waves, so that the stones skipped along the surface of the water as many times as possible. "We’ve brought them from the Pacific shore," explained Gary, a student from Vancouver, Odessa’s Canadian sister-city. "We’ll leave them here as a sign that we will come back to this place some day." We stood in silence for a while and then set off back to the hotel.

But this wasn’t the end of the story with stones. John, an accountant by profession but a poet in his soul, had presented all of us with stones on the first day of our acquaintance, beautiful stones from California beaches, ground with his own hands. Stones were his passion, he confessed. So we decided to present him with a collection of stones from the Caucasian Black Sea coast in return. Each of our stones had a name: Drowse, Mood, Octopus, Universe. John was enraptured when he received the present and heard the stones’ names. He ran up to his room and brought his Universe stone! The two stones looked very much alike, with billions of white flecks on a dark background. There was something symbolic in this exchange, and everyone felt it. All stood excited, moved with the most sincere emotions. No one wished to say goodbye. Our American friends shook our hands, promising they would never forget the marvelous city of Odessa and that they would come here again and again. We believe them, and we wait, for them and for everyone who strives for peace and understanding.

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